Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Icy Beauty...

Just one photo to share today.  Met three friends early this cold morning to photograph one of my favorite waterfalls, Taughannock Falls near Trumansburg, New York. The frozen waterfall and the fresh snow laying on the rocks were the lure for us all.

Here is what I found.

At 215 feet, this is the tallest free-drop waterfall east of the  Mississippi River.  Capturing the reflection of the falls made this the one image to value above all the others.


Paul Schmitt

Friday, December 13, 2013

iPhoneography on a Snowy Day

Is anyone not busy in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas?  It has left little time for photography, and each time that I set aside time to photograph, the weather ruins the plan.  On top of the normal holiday business, I have been learning this new iPhone 5S which is so unlike my familiar iPhone 4. I have been putting off testing the camera in this new phone. Today, I changed that.

As I was leaving the Nevin Visitor Center at Cornell Plantations, I was suddenly consumed with the beauty of some snow capped berries on the viburnum bushes, and best camera that I had available was my smart phone.  It was also the only camera that I had available, so it was the best camera by default.

In the few minutes I had in our schedule, I worked hard to create a nice image and overcome the wide angle lens' tendency to show a lot more background than makes for a good image. I got just two that I like.  This one has a lot of negative space so that you definitely know what the subject is.

I had another image which I liked, but it needed some editing to control the viewer's attention to the closest berries.  I did all of the editing on my iPhone 5S.  Here is what I started with.

This image needed some adjustments to exposure and composition to hold the viewer's attention relative to the busy background.  The image, first of all, was too dark and the sides needed cropping.

Next, I duplicated the image so I had two layers with the top remaining as it came from the camera (with crop and increased exposure) and the layer beneath processed to acquire a soft blur. Picture this as two transparent slides stacked one on top of the other.  Then I made the periphery of the top image transparent so that the blurred background became visible. Voila, the periphery is now out of focus!  This is the  same effect I would achieve if I had my DSLR camera with a lens that had a more narrow field of view.  The distant background for a telephoto lens drops out of focus rapidly leaving just the foreground subject sharp.

Finally, I wanted a more painterly image.  So, I took the image to MobileMonet to create the sort of image that would result for making a pen and ink drawing and using watercolor to fill in the colors.

Maybe this will give you some ideas for using your camera. I am always available to fill in the details.

Now, if I was just there when the birds come in to feast on the berries. Sadly, that will have to wait for another day.

Best regards to you!




Sunday, November 10, 2013

November means Bald Eagles

November means three things to me.  I am another year older. It is time to put up the deer stands.  And, the bald eagles are congregating on the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam. The density of eagles there means that photography becomes akin to batting practice for baseball players.  There is a nice combination of autumn colors and a large number of exciting fly-bys by eagles at close range. 

Conowingo Dam has been providing electricity since 1928. The original powerhouse, seen to the left, houses the original seven turbines and another three larger units that were added years later to the right of the original units.

Below the dam is the fisherman's park in the left foreground.  When turbines come to life, significant numbers of fish are discharged, drawing game fish and birds to feed on the bounty.  Gulls, cormorants and eagles are predominately present plus the black vultures which clean up after the others. From mid October through January, the number of bald eagles attracts many bird photographers (and some birders, too).

Standing by the river, one sees the eagles sweeping across the river searching for a stunned fish on the surface.  Once spotted, they often execute a sharp turn and steep dive to approach from upstream.

My favorite sequence of photos shows the eagle's approach to a fish on the surface, the snatch and the flight away to a feed perch. The moment of contact is graceful.

Often, the bird will look down to make sure it has a good grasp.

And, away it will climb to a secure place to consume the catch.  It does not intend to share this with anyone.

That said, there is a lot of attempted thievery among eagles, and that makes for interesting viewing. The eagle on the right is closing in to attempt a steal, knowing that the weight of the fish makes the other less agile.

Here is one such conflict that occurred close to the powerhouse one day.

Not all of the feeding is by eagles, here is a juvenile ring-billed gull with a smaller fish in its beak.  I found gulls even more difficult to follow in flight due to more erratic flights.

Another frequent bird is the double crested cormorant, which in this case was showing some nice hues.  The beak's end is perfect for grasping its prey.  They dive underwater to find their food.

While much of this occurs directly out on the river, some real excitement happens when an eagle comes directly towards the photographer on its way to the large sycamores behind fisherman's park. It makes for some great photos and for some terrible misses. This was my favorite from my last visit.

I'm already thinking about how to get back to Conowingo one more time this year with the  knowledge that it can get brutally cold on the river in December.  It is worth the challenge on the really good days.

Hope you enjoy the story of Conowingo, and if you are ever passing that way this time of year, it is a great visit with the best time usually before 10 am.

Paul Schmitt

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lost Alaskan Gold, Now Found

When I got home from Alaska in September and began to go through all of my photos, I realized that I was missing some photos of a grizzly bear showing some nice behavior.  I had spotted this bear traversing a slope below the bus.  Initially, it was maybe 100 yards away.

I resigned myself to the idea that I had somehow erased the wrong photos when my memory cards got near to full.  It left me in a funk that I could be so stupid.

I did have some nice photos of the bear digging up edible tubers. The power of this bear to unearth huge pieces of tundra was something that left a big impression on me. But, I was still missing another behavior that could only be a memory.

Last night, while preparing my cameras for a trip, I did my usual routine of checking batteries, camera settings and memory cards.  When I checked the backup camera's memory card, I saw it had some photos that I did not recognize.  I plugged them into my reader and to my surprise, there were the photos that I thought I had erased. I had forgotten that I also used my backup camera with a wider angle lens when the bear came really close to the bus.  So what was I so fixed upon?

The look on the bear's face speaks of a certain pleasure.  This bear had an itch, and when you have an itch, you look for some way to scratch it. This poor bush was its backscratcher.  It really got into this just like we do.

I recall that the grizzly left the bush pretty well busted up.

Now, in the future, I will practice switching the backup over to take video because this would have been quite amusing to watch.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, November 1, 2013

The End of Autumn

Yesterday was the last day of my photo exhibit at Cornell Plantation's Nevin Welcome Center. As I drove through heavy rain on my way to pack up the display, I did not expect to find any good scenes. So, I only had my cell phone camera.  As I should have expected, the rain ceased and the remaining leaves were deeply saturated in color.  It only got better and when I packed my car, I was regretting my decision not to bring a camera.  But, the camera you have is the camera you use.

So, this is what I saw from the parking lot.  I've processed it in MobilMonet to create a pen and watercolor rendition.

Looking down at the garden bed which borders the parking lot, the combination of fading asters and fallen leaves spoke of the final stage of autumn.  It makes me want to go out and plant a few maple trees in my yard. (Then I remember the work of clearing autumn leaves!)

To many, the lure of fall photos is the grand view of a landscape, but I also like to search the ground for those small arrangements of leaves.  It is much like the Where's Waldo images that are so compelling.

You may ask if I arrange the leaves.  No, the enjoyment is in discovering the random act.  This one on the concrete walk attracts me because of the stains from earlier leaves that have been scattered.

There were many other subjects that were beyond the capability of the cell phone camera.  The camera is just too wide a view to exclude bad elements such as cars and power poles. I was satisfied that I had at least caught some of what I felt at the moment.  Today, the winds are strong and most of the leaves will be gone from the trees. 

Paul Schmitt

Monday, October 21, 2013

White-faced Ibis

To the uninitiated, the behavior of birders when pursuing a rare sighting is puzzling. The recent report of  two White-faced Ibis at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge near Seneca Falls, New York brought about a flurry of activity.  There is some discussion if one of the birds is a Glossy Ibis palling with its far western relative, or if the one bird is a juvenile White-faced Ibis  with its parent. No matter, really, if you just concentrate on their rarity and their beauty.  Take a look.

It has a brilliant red eye.  The bird's feathers glow in the sun with gold and purple and green. Oh my!  It has this long curved bill that is a specialized tool to probe in soft mud for food.  In the next photo I spotted evidence of what they are seeking.

 Can you see it?  Look more closely below.

Looks like a nightcrawler to me.  Given the intense feeding activity I saw, there must be a huge number of worms in the wetlands at Montezuma.

So there were two Ibis, and they stayed close together. I theorize it is an adult and its juvenile, but it would be hard to confirm.  The markings between Glossy and White-faced are compounded in the non-breeding season by differences between adult and juvenile. I did see this interaction which led me to speculate on the adult/juvenile relation.

The bird on the right with the red eye is likely an adult. Again, beautiful colors. Worth the trip to see them and watch their behaviors.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, October 11, 2013

Rickett's Glen at "Off Peak"

Made the two hour drive to Rickett's Glen State Park in Pennsylvania today with photographer friend Ray hoping for some peak autumn color.  The maple leaves were already on the ground for the most part and beech were mostly green and holding tight on the trees.  Seemed to be caught in the middle of two autumns.  Surely not peak colors.  So, what do you do?  Well, I grabbed onto any hint of autumn and let the wonderful moving water add some interest.

Above  Mohawk Falls, which I've been to at least a dozen times, I saw something I'd not noticed before. This decaying tree stump mimics the water's drop.

How could I miss that? This is actually two images with one presenting a sharp foreground and the other contributing a sharp middle ground.  So, it closely matches how our brain pieces together the scene as the eye explores the scene.  Your eye refocuses and the brain assembles the net result as above.

I spent a lot of time at the tree stump, but finally moved below Mohawk Falls for another view.

Further down the glen, I looked down at my feet to find a little of the lost maple leaves.

And yes, there were a few patches of color.

After a morning of photography on the rocky trail, we reached Waters Meet where a second glen spills into the stream.  As I devoured my peanut butter wrap, I watched a swirl of yellow leaves in the eddy below the last drop into the pool and hatched a plan for my final image. I made extremely long exposures through a dark filter to paint the swirl in the pool.

The 1.3 mile hike to the highway was thankfully downhill.  Reaching the car, I felt optimistic that I had done okay on a day when the fall colors were definitely "off-peak".  (Yes,  I've learned not to believe the state tourism reports of peak colors.  They all overstate conditions to bring business into their areas.)

Paul Schmitt

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Adirondack Color

Made a quick trip up to the high peaks area of the Adirondacks to explore some areas new to me. The tourism reports of peak color were exaggerated, which is no big surprise.  Still I found some nice places.  On the way in from the interstate highway, I stopped by Splitrock Falls on NY9.  It was a bright, high contrast day so I had to use a mild bit of high dynamic processing to capture the tones in the shaded areas.  I want to return here on a cloudy day after some heavy rain.

Since I arrived at noon, I had time to take a fairly rugged hike near Chapel Pond on NY73. The objective was Giant's Nubble and a view of Giant's Wash Bowl. The 2.5 mile route up seems to have another 1/2 mile in detouring around large boulders and such.  The view was ample payment for the effort.

Before the day ended, I also explored a pond near Lake Placid.  I planned to return there in the morning, when the morning fog rises.  Hiking the pond with only my little point and shoot Canon G9, I found the pond beautiful in the evening as well.

My main objective for this trip was to make the long hike up the west side of the Ausable River from St. Hubert's.  This is on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve property.  They are largely responsible for saving the high peaks from lumbering, and only allow access by foot on their trails.  It proved to be a challenging trail in very uneven terrain, but I am not complaining.  The waterfalls were unlike any I have seen before.  The first was Wedge Falls. It looks like a large rock wedge was driven in to separate the water's descent.

Wedge Brook has a series of cascades and water slides above the main falls.  This little spot was hidden away from the trail a short distance.

I continued on towards my lunch destination of Beaver Meadow Falls.

Imaging sitting on a log, viewing this scene after 2-1/2 hours of  hiking.  Tuna on a pita made for a delightful lunch.  I was hungry enough to eat cardboard, in truth.  As I visually explored the scene, I saw an interesting little side area and found a rainbow in a shaft of sunlight at the base of the falls. It was one of those situations where the eye sees a lot more than the camera can fully capture. Still, I have to share it for the wonder that I found.

At this point, I was most interested to make it to Lower Ausable dam, and to reach the gravel road that would yield a smooth walk for the 4-1/2 miles back to the car.  I made the road after 5 hours of hiking and headed towards what would be another two hours of steady walking.  That was interrupted when I saw a large beaver pond.  The beaver proved to be very indifferent to humans. I'd begun to doubt the wisdom of including my heavy long-range zoom in the pack until this moment.

I could literally hear the beaver gnawing away at the soft exterior of the branches.  Thanks to the AMR for keeping this wilderness unspoiled and free from trapping. That is the reason that the beaver  are unafraid of humans. A special  moment was when one beavier swam toward me into a patch of water reflecting the rich colors of the trees.

This was so exciting I almost forgot to trip the shutter.  As I looked at my watch, I saw that I needed to get moving with a long walk to the gate house, and my feet feeling weary.  My day was only to get better when a kind member of the AMR offered this tired hiker a lift out. I must  have looked like I felt.  Furthermore, she took me all the way past the gate house another 0.6 miles to the parking area. This had been a wonderful day in all regards.

I was to return home on the next day, but before sunrise, I returned to the pond near Lake Placid and found some nice color as the fog lifted.  Whiteface Mountain is supposed to be in the distance, but the fog never allowed that before I needed to make my last stop at a new location, Nichol's Brook.

Even though I was weary after the hike up Ausable River the day before, I had run by Nichol's Brook and liked what I saw.  Arriving at mid-morning, I did something different. Rather than look upstream at the cascade, I looked downstream and found some rich reflections of  yellow, green and blue.

Autumn has always been a challenge for me artistically. The grand views of hills coated with red and yellow never seem to be as interesting in a photo as they were to the eye.  It seems I have to look closer and distill the scene into a less busy, confusing image. I liked what I saw at Nichol's Brook more than I can recall before.  I looked even closer.


This became even more satisfying to my eye.  It is always a challenge to produce a photo that matches what my brain saw and felt. I feel like this trip was a big step forward in reconciling the two.

I'll be back.  Hoping for some rain and cloudy weather the next time for a new take on the Adirondacks.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, September 27, 2013

Impressions of Denali

Hear the name Denali, and two objects are likely to come to mind, a mountain called Denali in the local Athabaskan dialect. That means "the great one", and it is certainly appropriate at 20,332 feet.  Secondly, one can think of the large national park that encompassed the mountain plus an amazing array of natural wonders. At six million acres, it could also be called a great one, too.  Strangely, the official US name for the mountain is still Mount McKinley, because members of the Ohio congressional delegation block any attempt to return the original name to the mountain.  They are protecting the name of their native son over the wishes of the Alaskan's who insist on Denali. So, it seems we've taken both their mountain and its name.  But in Alaska, I heard no one call it McKinley.

The first really good view of the park is a few miles in on the only road towards the park's interior.  In September, the tundra is rich with color.

  I was on a photo safari that went deep into the park to stay at the Camp Denali. On my first visit there, we saw the park riding in uncomfortable school buses over the sometimes harsh gravel
highway. This time we had a very comfortable bus driven by a highly qualified naturalist from Camp Denali. We could photograph from the bus, and also get out when the subject called for that.
When you visit Denali, you expect to see animals, both large and small.  Along the first ten or so miles, it is good moose habitat, and early September is the breeding season for them. So there were some excellent opportunities.  He's not a particularly large bull, but he had a cow nearby.  So, he was putting on a display for her.

The display consists of attacking defenseless trees to polish his rack and impress the cow.

A more intimidating display was hyperventilating, and then blowing out a cloud of steam.

When he curled up his lips, the threat was enough to be sure that you had a vehicle to slip behind.

At fifteen miles, one comes to the Savage River gate, and no private vehicles are allowed past that point.  The road becomes gravel, and includes some narrow mountainside sections that require careful driving.  As the road gains elevation on the mountainside,  there are expansive views where the distances are hard to gauge.

That is fresh snow on the mountain peaks.  Denali itself was  hidden in clouds well above the cloud level for most of our time in the park. "Did you get to see the mountain?" is a common theme in discussing any visit to the park.

As the road penetrates the park interior, it gains elevation and the colors become more striking. This color comes from a number of low plants that are also critical to another large mammal in the park, the bear.  At this time of the year, winter is rapidly approaching and they are in a race to build up fat for the long hibernation. We spent one morning exploring the tundra to see the where this color comes from.

 There are blueberries in great abundance. They contribute the rich reds and oranges in the tundra.  They were pretty tasty, especially if breakfast had been at 6:00 am while on a bus heading out for the beautiful early morning light.  (Lest you think this was a sacrifice, Camp Denali food was terrific.  It's all scratch cooking by three professional chefs. They made me  milk-free granola bars!)

Looking closely at the tundra there are also other rich red leaves --bearberry?-- and wild cranberry, and white lichens.  It is a mosaic of form and color. My background in eastern North America flora left me unqualified to identify, but eager to explore.

I did learn to spot the wild cranberry, and they are, to my palate, tasty too. Here is a close look at the wild cranberry.

So, now that you know what the berries are like, let's look at the number one fan of wild berries, the grizzly bear.  You can spot them from a pretty long distance, which is good since there are some pretty distant views available.

They walk with a bit of a swagger.

This is a good time to explain where the name comes from.  Grizzly is a form of grizzled, meaning streaked. Note the light tones streaked down the back against darker brown.

All of the dark reddish color seen above in the tundra are likely blueberries. The bear is going to need a lot of them, and it is not going to pick out the individual berries like we humans do. It's going to take it all in - leaves, stalks and berries all together.  It gets it roughage for sure.

There are also other sources of food including tubers in the ground.  The bear doesn't dig for them; it's more like excavating.  With two powerful paws, it uproots large clumps to sort through for the roots.  There is little that is delicate about their foraging.

There are also other interesting animals to find.  I had never seen willow ptarmigan before our bus came upon scores of them along the road on a rainy morning.  (Nearly all mornings were rainy.) Appropriately, they were in the low lying dwarf willow and birch, picking seeds. The birds were in the transition from their all brown summer plumage to their winter "whites".  I could hear them calling within the flock, just as I have heard bobwhite quail.

On several occasions, we heard cranes flying high overhead on their trek south for the winter.  It is reportedly unusual that they would land in Denali, so there were no photographic opportunities for them.  However, coming around a bend on the bus, we looked in a kettle pond to find another majestic transient bird, tundra swans.

I'd mentioned that seeing Denali is a hallmark of any visit there, and so far it had remained in the clouds.  On the final evening, as we gathered in the dining hall, the view out the windows toward Denali seems to be improving. As dessert was being delivered to the tables, the mountain began to open and many desserts were abandoned to go outside with a camera. It teased us but was still holding some clouds at the peak.

The next morning was an early start for the five hour bus ride out to the entrance, but at 5:00 am, there were people out looking towards the mountain in the early "civil light" that precedes sunrise.  It looked possible that the mountain was unveiling itself.  This is what was possible to see.

The lights from the dining hall illuminate the foreground, and to right of center in the far distance, the big mountain is holding onto a few thin clouds.   After a quick breakfast, the photographers hurried to their bus to get a head start on the other camp guests.  We went to Wonder Lake with the hope to see Denali revealed plus reflected in the calm lake. Seemed a chancy situation. Arriving, we quickly hurried to an edge of the lake and set up for the view.  Did we luck out?

I'd say we were 98% successful.  As the sun rose to light up the face of the mountain, the very tip of the peak gathered some wisps of moisture.  Still, it was overwhelmingly beautiful in all of its size from thirty miles distant!  That provides some strength for the next 34 hours of travel to get home.

I'd love to return to Camp Denali again.  The staff is extremely accommodating and knowledgeable. Their daily outings are designed for all levels of physical ability. The food and housing are unusual in such a remote location.  Most visitors to Denali only see a small part of the park near the entrance and miss the full glory of Denali. Three days at Camp Denali soar over any other visit there.

Paul Schmitt